The Poetry of Marvell

by Andrew Marvell

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646

Andrew Marvell, influenced by the work of Ben Jonson and John Donne, was the last major poet with their qualities and habits of mind. All his great poems are metaphysical; that is, they present feeling intellectually and synthesize thought and passion. Marvell is always aware of the multiplicity and the unity of the universe and the tension he maintains between them constitutes the peculiar poise and balance of his verse. This metaphysical reconciliation of seeming opposites appears in the imagery of the poems, which with characteristic hyberbole combine many areas of ideas and experience.

“An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” generally acknowledged to be the finest poem of its kind in the language, exemplifies both his political feeling and the balance of thought in his verse. It is probably the last English poem in which the divine right of kings and a totally different type of rule could be presented simultaneously. Marvell celebrates Cromwell’s phenomenal rise to power “from his private gardens” to

. . . cast the Kingdoms oldInto another mould.

The king’s weakness rendered him helpless against the strength of Cromwell, and Marvell records the nobility of Charles I, who “adorned” the “tragic Scaffold.” The transition from the account of the king’s death to the time of Cromwell’s rule are terse and effective:

This was that memorable hour,Which first assured the forc’d Power.

Although he praises the efficiency and energy of Cromwell and acknowledges that he gave the government of the country to Parliament, Marvell sees also the necessity to continue fighting (after Ireland, Scotland remains to be subdued), and he concludes with a muted warning:

The same Arts that did gainA Pow’r, must it maintain.

The equipoise of the “Ode” is maintained through its combination of praise, reticence, and admonition: the recognition of the justice of Cromwell and of the tradition of kingship. Desire for the good of his country outweighs the poet’s feelings about specific acts. He both disliked the execution of the king and declared that Cromwell’s ability would be beneficial to England. This sustained tension between forces gives the “Ode” its power.

Marvell’s reputation rests on a very few poems. Some of the loveliest of these are the poems in which he employs nature images. One of his outstanding characteristics is his use of a simple theme to develop a deeply serious idea. Wit and brilliant imagery enhance the seriousness of his thought, so that an apparently slight subject will thus carry religious and philosophic implications and express the complex sensibility which is so much a part of the metaphysical poetic tradition. In “The Bermudas,” Marvell celebrates the joyous exile of a group of nonconformists who left England in the days of Anglican Bishop Laud. Those islands, “far kinder than our own,” sheltered and welcomed them and they were able freely to practice their religion. The poem glows with joy and pleasure at God’s grace manifested in the tropical luxuriance of the exiles’ environment:

He hangs in shades the Orange bright,Like golden Lamps in a green Night.

These images parallel their spiritual freedom.

Religious significance is implicit in “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Faun.” The huntsmen cannot cleanse themselves of guilt, even though the nymph forgives them; the faun’s whiteness and purity are matchless. The tone of gentle grief is perfectly maintained, however, and the precision of the images exactly conveys heartfelt emotion:

So weeps the wounded Balsome: soThe holy Frankincense doth flow.The brotherless HeliadesMelt in such Amber Tears as these.

The most complex of the poems that draw their imagery from nature is “The Garden.” Here Marvell’s wit and resilience of mind are almost dazzlingly apparent. Coleridge has described the poetic imagination as a “more than usual state of emotion with a more than usual order.” This statement could well describe the impact of “The Garden.” The pleasure of recognition symbolized by “the palm, the oak bays,” with reference to the slight shade these individual leaves cast, is contrasted with the shade given by flowers and trees. Quiet and innocence are not to be found among men:

Society is all but rudeTo this delicious solitude.

No lovely woman is “As am’rous as this lovely green.” The tree on which a mistress’ name is carved is far more beautiful than she. The hyperbole of these assertions contains its own irony; the passionate insistence with which they are made obliquely denies some of their validity. The fourth stanza describes classical lovers who confirm the thesis that the garden contains all delights:

Apollo hunted Daphne soOnly that she might Laurel grow.

In the sensual delights of the garden, sexual pleasure is no longer sublimated but is provided by the fruit itself:

The nectarine, and curious Peach,Into my hands themselves do reach.

Along with this sexual identification, the image of Eden and the fall of man is present in the image of “ripe apples” and the line, “Insnar’d with flowers, I fall on grass.”

The sixth verse contains the climax of the poem. Here the tension and poise are most marked. The sensual pleasure has led to intellectual joy, and “the Mind, from pleasure less./Withdraws into its happiness.” In the mind are images of all material things and from these it creates transcendent worlds of its own until the quintessence of nature is perceived:

Annihilating all that’s madeTo a green Thought in a green Shade.

The remaining three stanzas are more relaxed, yet they carry the weight of, and are reinforced by, the previous argument. The poet’s soul glides into the trees where “like a Bird, it sits and sings.” It will stay there until it is ready to ascend. Meanwhile, it “Waves in its Plumes the various Light.” Eden, the poet says, was like this, but the joy of solitude was “beyond a Mortal’s share.”

Two paradises t’were in oneTo dwell in Paradise alone.

The last stanza returns to a man-made garden, where a sundial of herbs and flowers measures the “sweet and wholesome houres.” The “skilled Gard’ner” is, of course, God as well as a human craftsman.

The levels of thought and feeling in this complex poem are so carefully wrought together that they could not exist alone. The ideas complement, balance, and reveal one another. The withdrawal of the mind to contemplation of paradise and its wry conclusion that such solitude is impossible are inextricable if their full force is to be appreciated. From the original conceit that all ambition can be satisfied by the delights of a garden, the themes are, through the allusive imagery, totally interdependent.

Marvell’s two great love poems, “The Definition of Love” and “To his Coy Mistress,” are passionate and urbane, intense and witty, violent and civilized. The reconciliation of opposites is the theme of the definition: it is the metaphysical proposition that in perfect love separation is essential. The validity of this proposition relies on the jealousy of fate. The poet’s love was “begotten by despair/Upon impossibility.” The decrees of Fate

Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,(Though love’s whole world on us dothwheel)Not by themselves to be embraced.

The conceit, that heaven would have to fall

And, us to join, the world should allBe cramped into a Planisphere

before the lovers could be together, emphasizes the inevitability of separation:

Therefore the love which doth us bind,But fate so enviously debars,Is the conjunction of the mind,And opposition of the stars.

The punning conceit in these lines exemplifies the wit and logic of Marvell’s verse.

The crowd of images, change of mood, and development of emotional tension combined with a subtle variation of rhythm and pace render “To His Coy Mistress” Marvell’s greatest poetical achievement. His theme is the traditional one of “Gather Ye Rosebuds.” The opening theme is that if there were time enough the lover would woo endlessly:

My vegetable love should growVaster than Empires and more slow.

An urbane note is sounded in the lines:

For, lady, you deserve this state,Nor would I love at lower rate.

Then comes the surprising reversal:

But at my back I always hearTimes winged chariot hurrying near,And yonder all before us lye,Deserts of vast eternity.

The lines ring with passionate desperation and the awful vision of the unknown. The next image is one of destruction in the grave, where the lady’s beauty shall no longer exist and honor and lust alike will turn to dust and ashes. From this vision of death the poet turns to an evocation of the lady’s present beauty. He adapts the theory that souls shine through the flesh of people of exceptional purity to a reason for consummating their love:

And while thy willing Soul transpiresAt every pore with instant fires,Now let us sport us while we may.

The ardor of the saint has become the heat of physical passion. The conceit of conquering time is developed in images of strength—they will “devour”—time, and will combine their powers “into one Ball” to force their pleasures “Through the iron gates of life”:

Thus, though we cannot make our sunStand still, yet we will make him run.

The power of this love is conveyed in the witty and determined assault on unconquerable time.

These poems, with the addition of the “Dialogue between The Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure” and “Clorinda and Damon,” are those on which Marvell’s reputation depends. His poetic ability was seemingly lost after the Restoration, and he wrote, in verse, only political satires. The flowering of his sensibility prior to this period is an outstanding example of that fusion of wit, passion, and intellect which had its roots in Latin culture and its last complete expression in the poetry of Andrew Marvell.

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